How Smash Up Killed Magic For Me
I was teaching Smash Up at a local gaming convention to a group of four players (base set only; it wasn’t my copy) when I made the remark that turned a number of heads, from all around the surrounding area – “Smash Up killed Magic the Gathering for me.” I was expressing how this game alone removed any desire I had to play Magic on any regular basis because I believed in the game so much. Before I explain why, it is important to make a couple of caveats to put my explanation in context.
First, I was never a hardcore Magic enthusiast, not out of a lack of desire, but because of a lack of money and opponents. I collected Magic in elementary school long before I had a job and I was on a fixed (non-existent) income at the time, because I was in elementary school. I even had my cards taken away by my teacher when I tried to teach the one other interested student during lunch. I was able to play with my three brothers for a while, but it was difficult for all of us to keep up with the changes and my oldest brother in particular was clearly better than me.
Second, I think Magic the Gathering is an unprecedented, amazing phenomenon that no other game will ever come close to replicating. I have tremendous respect for Richard Garfield (who makes some fantastic board games) and what he has created and I marvel at the longevity, depth and creativity that Magic has sustained. As a software engineer who programs games on the side, I am quick to admit I wouldn’t even know where to begin with programming a game of magic because of all the interactions. In college, I once played a game where we had to call an official Magic judge (yes, this is a thing) and I was amazed by the idea. I would not blame anyone for thinking I’m wrong in my declaration; it is merely my opinion and I fully admit that my knowledge of the lifestyle is limited.
Finally, if I started playing Magic today without knowing about Smash Up, I would likely be all-in because the extensibility and gameplay really appeals to me. I live in Raleigh now, which has a strong Magic community and would solve my opponent problem. Also, I can finally afford it.
And yet I have no desire to play the game more than once a year (which I try to do, mostly out of nostalgia) not because Magic is bad but because Smash Up is so good. One of the nearby attendees (with whom I have since begun the Smash Up indoctrination process) asked me why I felt that way; he even followed up at our next game night because the remark had stuck with him. I will detail a few of those reasons here.
One obvious reason is going to be cost. To date, with all Smash Up content through What Were We Thinking, totaling 50 factions, I have spent approximately $175 on Smash Up. Having 50 factions offers 1225 unique combinations of factions, and since no faction feels the same (more on this later), I really feel like I am playing a new game every time. Yet Smash Up is more than a single combination of two groups – the number of players as well as what pairings those players have also make the game feel different. Certain groupings will player stronger or weaker with fewer or more players; Elves and Ignobles essentially require more than two players, whereas Ninjas and Kitty Cats excel at min-maxing your opponents. From a cost-to-content ration, Smash Up has created an easily sustainable source of fun to last me indefinitely. When I acquire the All-Stars deck and Big In Japan, which is all but inevitable, I will gain another 260 faction combinations for what I assume will be around $30. That is extremely reasonable.
Whereas Magic has great personal cost for each player, Smash Up actually consolidates that cost down to a single person in most scenarios. Since I own all 50 factions, I can be the single source for all my opponents and they can play repeatedly without needing their own set. This would be difficult for Magic, since to recreate the same accessibility while maintaining the variability, I would need to own a significant amount of decks. If players enjoy the game, they can begin collecting the sets at their own pace which would allow for using the same faction twice with different players (of which I am not a fan, but the option remains). This sharing of resources helps solve the opponent problem by removing the personal cost for anyone but those who choose to opt in to ownership; this makes the game extremely more accessible than Magic. If a player were to buy only the newest expansion to complement my set, we’ve increased our variability significantly without changing my personal investment.
To the surprise of many, Smash Up is organizationally similar to Magic. When I played Magic, of the five colors, Red (direct damage) paired best with Black (necromany) and White (defensive) while Blue (counterspells) paired with White and Black. Green (never really played much Green) was the wildcard that seemed to fit in anywhere and were very creature based. Red/Blue and Black/White were antagonistic to each other, which I’m told has since been toned down. Smash Up has its own categories. There are Power based factions that are the ones primarily responsible for bringing power to bases (Dinosaurs, Mythic Greeks, Princesses); there are Destruction based factions that destroy other players’ minions to counter Power (Ninjas, Sharks, Vampires); there are Support factions that are designed to enhance minions through buffs, defensive abilities and extra plays (Wizards, Fairies, Time Travelers); there are Control factions that alter the normal flow of the game to your advantage (Tricksters, Kitty Cats, Dragons); and there are Movement factions that provide movement to consolidate power (Mythic Horses, Pirates, Tornados). Just as different Magic sets implement the five colors through a recurring pattern with interesting nuances, Smash Up also recurs these patterns but altering the way each time to create a fresh experience each time. The Pirates are half movement, half destruction while Tornados are full movement. The Tornados can move any minions, whereas the Bear Calvary specialize in moving opponent minions to their death. The Dinosaurs bring quick, rampaging power to bases with high printed power whereas the Giant Ants utilize a slow power creep with a sudden burst that can be recycled from base to base, often breaking two bases in a turn. Robots supply power through numbers even on separate bases while Mythic Horses draw power from being on the same base. Tricksters make it near impossible to play minions on their bases while Dragons make it possible but highly undesirable to do so. Just as certain combinations of colors do not work, not every combination of Categories works well in Smash Up either. Destruction does not work well against movement because Destruction is generally on the played base, which spreads out the attacking player’s power rather than consolidating it. Movement does not work against Power because you may not catch up in a race to first place on a base.
Magic requires extensive domain knowledge and careful consideration in constructing a deck. This is one of its greatest strengths, but also one of its weaknesses. It is very difficult to hand someone a deck of Magic to play that you have created since they do not know the contents; similarly, your ability to play Magic is just as much determined by your ability to construct decks as well as your ability to play them. This can make for a very long, expensive learning curve. Smash Up does not have this problem because the decks are premade – a simple card list is all that is needed to provide a new player with the contents of their deck and each faction can be summarized in a sentence or two to provide general strategy direction. This makes the game much more teachable for me, and as a board game evangelist, that is extremely important.
Finally, we reach the most significant issue that I have with Magic – the deprecation problem. All the cards that I collected when I was younger, the reward for using what little money I had at the time – essentially useless. For necessary reasons, both to refine the scope and maintain balance, Magic will periodically phase out and deprecate cards to allow room for new ones. I knew this at the time that I was playing sixth edition – fifth edition, your days are numbered. As someone who did not play the game much between elementary school and college, I would have had to start completely over or be at a severe disadvantage to contemporary players. Yet Smash Up does not have this problem, for although a few mechanics do not feel natural to me (Madness, Monsters and Treasures), the vast majority of the game still fits in seamlessly from inception to present. In fact, it is amazing how well the base factions maintain their usefulness. I would have thought that the Talent mechanic, introduced in the first expansion and used ubiquitously ever since, would have decreased the relevancy of the original eight, yet this has not been the case. For any player who walks away from the game for an extended period, they can easily return and play the same factions they knew and loved from the first instance and play them competitively. For me, Smash Up is akin to purchasing a house and building equity whereas Magic is renting an apartment (albeit a really nice apartment); whatever money I put into Smash Up will provide sustained value and that ultimately nullified any lingering desire I had to play Magic.
After a concise explanation of the above, my curious inquisitor remarked that he could understand why I felt as I did. Although it hasn’t replaced Magic for him (yet, there’s still time), my comments no longer seemed crazy and far-fetched, and that is the best anyone can hope for when it comes to convincing Magic players.